Wildcard Wednesday: Playoff Fever
With the excitement packed, state playoff cutoff weekend upon us in Shore Conference football, we will find out who is headed to the bright lights of the postseason and who will be buying tickets to playoff games this season.
Three games in particular stand out in Week Nine that will have an impact. Here is an in-depth look at those three as well as some other games to watch on what is always one of the more pressure-packed, exciting weekends of the football season.
Rumson-Fair Haven (7-0) at Asbury Park (7-0), Saturday at noon
This game has been on the horizon for weeks as it was anticipated that both teams would be undefeated heading into the nondivisional clash. Both teams are looking to lock down the No. 1 seed in their respective brackets, Rumson in Central Jersey Group II and Asbury Park in Central Jersey Group I. Rumson is the defending CJ II champion, while Asbury Park has won three of the last four CJ I titles.
This will be Rumson’s size and depth vs. Asbury Park’s speed and explosiveness, so it promises to be an intriguing battle. Certainly Rumson’s defense showed it can contain one of the more outstanding offenses in recent memory when it stifled Matawan’s standout unit in a 13-7 win in last year’s CJ II final in which it did not allow an offensive touchdown.
Most of that defense from last year will be out on the field at Asbury Park Stadium on Saturday. The Bulldogs boast one of the top defensive lines in the Shore Conference in the senior-laden unit of tackles Jack Eisenstadt and Mike Alonzo and defensive ends Jack Miles and Jake Clapp. That front four will look to get consistent pressure on Asbury Park sophomore quarterback Robert Barksdale, who operates out of the shotgun in the Blue Bishops’ spread offense.
The Bulldogs’ front four also will look to collapse the Asbury Park line at the point of attack and get some hits for a loss to put the Blue Bishops in second-and-long and third-and-long situations that they rarely have faced this year. The last two times these teams have played, Rumson has had nearly double-digit hits for a loss in the game and forced Asbury Park to pass more than it has wanted to. Barksdale has not had to deal with a pass rush like he will see on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see how the sophomore will handle it.
A premium will be placed on tackling in the open field for Rumson because a missed tackle on Asbury Park senior twins Amir and Armond Conover could mean the difference in a 6-yard gain and a 60-yard touchdown. Rumson senior defensive back Mike Morralle should be a keep player in this game because of his speed and hitting ability in the open field, which will be crucial against a team that likes to throw bubble screens and short flares out of the backfield to the Conover twins. Linebackers Travis Clark and Brian Truex also will be important in getting Asbury Park’s explosive players on the ground before they can get into space to start juking defenders at full speed.
Asbury Park wants to take advantage of Rumson’s aggressiveness to find running lanes if the Bulldogs’ defensive linemen come too far upfield. Barksdale may have some opportunities to tuck and run with it, and there may be some opportunities in the screen game. Asbury Park wideouts Tajh Hammary, Thomond Hammary and Danron Morrissey have the speed to get behind Rumson’s secondary, but the main question remains as to whether Asbury Park’s offensive line can protect Barksdale long enough for deep routes to develop down the field.
Rumson’s defense has been very disciplined under veteran coordinator Jerry Schulte, so the Blue Bishops can’t get frustrated when they don’t hit their customary big plays. They will have to drive the field in increments and take what the Bulldogs give them without forcing the action or risking a potential turnover with ballhawks like Dan Babiak and Connor Riley lurking in the secondary.
On the other side of the ball, Asbury Park’s defense enters as the most dominant unit in the Shore Conference, but has not faced a team the level of Rumson, so this will be a great test. The Blue Bishops have only allowed 35 total points this season, the lowest in the Shore Conference.
Rumson is a methodical offense that can go up top if it has an opportunity. Junior quarterback Danny Roberto may be a first-year starter, but he plays with no fear. He will stand in the pocket and take a hit in order to deliver the ball on time down the field. The Bulldogs like to sprint him out to the right, and he is very accurate on intermediate routes and has an army of sure-handed receivers led by deep threat Blake Potter.
Riley is a workhorse at tailback who can get the hard yards behind an offensive line led by senior Matt Jewett. Junior Connor Walsh is another running threat, and Roberto can also make plays with his legs. Asbury Park wants to set the edge and force Roberto to stay in the pocket and throw the ball under pressure. The Blue Bishops also want to use the backside speed of the Hammary cousins and the Conover twins to chase down Roberto for blind-side hits whenever he tries to roll out.
Domingo Perez and Ra’zahn Howard have been two stalwarts up front on Asbury Park’s line, and they will be key as far as containing Rumson’s running game. If Riley is able to consistently gain four or five yards on the ground on first down, Asbury Park is in trouble because Rumson will be hard to defend on second-and-short because of all the different parts of the playbook that situations like that will open up.
Rumson wants to control the clock because the best way to stop Asbury Park’s offense is to keep it off the field. Plus, the Blue Bishops haven’t given up more than 13 points in a game all season, so if Rumson puts up 20 by the third quarter or so, that’s a psychological blow to a defense that has been impenetrable for much of the season.
Manchester (4-3) at Point Boro (4-3), 7 p.m. on Friday
Just like last year’s game between these two teams, this appears to be a “winner goes to the playoffs, loser goes home’’ game, although last year Point Boro lost to Manchester and still snuck into the South Jersey Group II playoffs as the eighth seed.
Manchester is looking to make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history, as the Hawks made just their second playoff appearance ever last year. They have never won a state playoff game, which is another goal on the list this season.
Point Boro has made the state playoffs in six of the last seven years and hopes to continue that trend under head coach Sean Henry. Both teams are coming in off wins, as Point Boro beat Raritan 35-17 last week, while Manchester beat Pinelands 51-7 on Oct. 21 before hitting its bye week.
Manchester is led by one of the top all-around players in the Shore Conference, senior running back/safety Joe Johnson. An explosive running back who also leads the Shore with seven interceptions on defense, Johnson has been Manchester’s primary playmaker and will be a focus of the Point Boro defense, which has struggled to stop the run on several occasions this season.
Senior quarterback Tim Rogers has been a steady presence for Manchester, and his primary targets have been Barrington Rose and Damiun Moore. Point Boro looks to contain Johnson and force Manchester into obvious passing downs when it can get upfield against Rogers and try to force him to make a mistake. Point Boro junior defensive back Chris Oliphant is coming off a game against Raritan in which he returned an interception 102 yards for a touchdown, so Point Boro’s secondary can make a play if given an opportunity.
Johnson’s counterpart on Point Boro is senior quarterback John Dunbar, an all-around playmaker who also is dangerous on special teams as a punt returner. Dunbar is a standout running threat at the helm of Point Boro’s triple option offense but also has the deep arm to get the ball down the field to junior wideout Kyle McGarry, one of the better vertical threats in the Shore Conference.
Like defending any triple option, Manchester is going to have to play disciplined, assignment football. It also will try to hit Dunbar as much as possible and force him to give it up to the slotbacks and make one of them beat them. Manchester has struggled to stop the run this year in a B South division that features several quality backs, so it will need to rise to the occasion in this one or else it’s going to be a shootout. Point Boro, meanwhile, aims to shorten the game by killing the clock with long drives that keep the ball out of Johnson’s hands.
A win by Point Boro most likely gives the Panthers the No. 7 or No. 8 seed in South Jersey Group II, while a win by the Hawks would probably put them in a similar position as the No. 7 or 8 seed in South Jersey Group III.
Neptune (6-1) at Colts Neck (4-3), 2 p.m. on Saturday
Both of these teams have to win to get into the playoffs, so this is the quintessential do-or-die game on cutoff weekend.
Neptune has won five straight and currently sits in seventh in power points in Central Jersey Group III, but to avoid getting leapfrogged, it has to get a win here and possibly move up into the 4-5 range by beating the Group IV Cougars.
Colts Neck needs the haul of power points from beating Neptune to qualify in Central Jersey Group IV for its first state playoff appearance since 2008. The Cougars are coming off a 21-7 victory over Freehold that kept their state playoff hopes alive and currently are in ninth-place in the Central Jersey Group IV power-point standings. (The top eight get into the playoffs).
Neptune enters with one of the top defenses in the Shore, having only surrendered 36 points all season and a combined three in its last three games. A swarming unit featuring a standout linebacking group that includes seniors Jazzmar Clax, Ikie Calderon, David Gutzmore and Eevan Sutton, the Scarlet Fliers fly to the ball and have been very tough against the run. Senior defensive back Jaheem Woods is a threat to take any interception back for a touchdown, while David Calderon is an underrated performer up front on the defensive line.
Colts Neck will be the best offense that Neptune has faced since the Scarlet Fliers lost 20-14 in double overtime to undefeated Red Bank Catholic in Week Two. The Cougars have a multi-dimensional attack led by senior tailback Victor Scalici, senior quarterback Dylan Cottrell and junior wideout Tim Vangelas. Colts Neck also has a pair of power backs in Adam Schatzmann and Anthony Gargiulo. Their main goal is to keep Neptune off balance by getting good yardage on first downs to give them more options and avoid having to frequently face the Neptune pass rush in obvious passing downs.
On the other side, Neptune’s offense has revolved around Woods, a playmaking quarterback who is the team’s leading rusher and passer. He operates out of the shotgun and is very dangerous when improvising off broken plays. Calderon is a threat on jet sweeps because of his speed, while Gutzmore and Clax are the between-the-tackles runners. Junior Myles Martin is another running threat.
The main X-factor is junior wideout Geoff Fairbanks, one of the most explosive receiving threats in the Shore Conference. He can turn a 5-yard swing pass into a 50-yard gain, so Colts Neck has to focus on making another receiver on Neptune beat the Cougars.
Colts Neck is a physical defense against the run but has been prone to giving up big plays, so it has to be disciplined. It has struggled against teams with good speed, so its main focus will be forcing Neptune to mount 10- or 12-play drives to score rather than having Woods get loose for big runs.
Other games to watch in Week Nine
Metuchen at Shore, 7 p.m. Friday: This game has important seeding implications in Central Jersey Group I, where Shore is the defending champion.
Lacey at Middletown South, 7 p.m. Friday: Middletown South has to win this game to get into the field in Central Jersey Group III and has not missed the playoffs since 1996. This is Lacey’s ninth game and does not count toward the Lions’ playoff hopes in South Jersey Group III, where they are the defending champions.
Toms River North at Manalapan, 7 p.m. Friday: Manalapan could possibly secure the No. 2 seed in Central Jersey Group IV with a win, while Toms River North has to win this game just to have a shot to make the field in South Jersey Group IV.
Southern at Middletown North, 7 p.m. Friday: Middletown North has to win this game to make the field in Central Jersey Group IV, while this is Southern’s ninth game and does not count toward the Rams’ standing in South Jersey Group IV, where they will be a top-three seed.
Wall at Colonia, 1 p.m. Saturday: The unbeaten Crimson Knights can make a push for a top-two seed in Central Jersey Group III with a win over Colonia.
Red Bank at Monmouth, 2 p.m. Saturday: Red Bank can clinch its first state playoff berth since 2004 with a victory over the winless Falcons.